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Abraham Lincoln's 

Charles Sumner 

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April, 1977 

Bulletin of The Lincoln National Life Foundation. ..Mark E. Neely, Jr., Editor. Published each month 
by The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46801. 

Number 1670 


There they were, right on schedule. In beautiful dark-red 
jackets portraying Lloyd Ostendorfs recently discovered 
photographic plate of Abraham Lincoln, they were neatly 
stacked in all good trade book stores and even in some of those 
not-so-good chains which handle only books which promise, 
by scholars' standards at least, a very large sale. A year ago, 
Harper and Row had promised them for Lincoln's birthday, 
1977. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham 
Lincoln by Stephen Oates had arrived. 

Never was a book better served by its publisher. A year ago, 
the wire services carried a photograph of Professor Oates ac- 
companied by stories that humble Abe was not so humble 
after all — that he did not even like to be called "Abe," in fact. 
He had not liked to talk about his youth and family origins. In 
his ambitious rise to frontier affluence and professional 
status, Oates told us, Lincoln did his utmost to forget his roots. 
The article usually said that Oates had been working on a life 
of Lincoln for seven years and that it would appear on 
Lincoln's birthday next year. It so appeared, and so did 
author Oates on NBC's morning news show for a typically 
shallow television interview which probed — among other 
searching questions — why anyone should want to write a bio- 
graphy of Abraham Lincoln after Carl Sandburg's work. 
Television interviews sell books. 

Stephen Oates is a biographer, not a Lincoln man. This 
much ballyhooed book is clearly meant, nevertheless, to be in 
that tradition of great one-volume biographies that includes 
Benjamin P. Thomas's Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New 
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952) and Reinhard H. Luthin's The 
Real Abraham Lincoln (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Pren- 
tice Hall, 1960). The difference is that Thomas and Luthin 
served their apprenticeships within the field of Lincolniana. 
Thomas wrote Lincoln's New Salem (Springfield, Illinois: 
Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934); Lincoln [Day-by-Day], 
1847-1853 (Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1936); 
and Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (New 
Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1947) 
before tackling his one-volume synthesis, probably the 
favorite to date among Lincoln aficionados forced to recom- 
mend or assign a one-volume biography. Luthin's solid book 
has always been underrated because it is stodgily written and 
repetitious (a student of Luthin's told me he had a thick 
German accent; that linguistic heritage may well account for 
his prose style). The books that Luthin wrote before The Real 
Abraham Lincoln were substantial contributions which have 
stood the test of time because they were based on prodigious 
research. Lincoln and the Patronage (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1943) and The First Lincoln Campaign 
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 
1944), written with co-author Harry J. Carman, are still stan- 
dard works in the field which merit study. 

Oates is a newcomer to the Lincoln field but not, certainly, 
to history and biography. He wrote a much acclaimed biogra- 
phy of John Brown entitled To Purge This Land with Blood, a 
history of the Nat Turner revolt called The Fires of Jubilee, 

and six other books. 

By my tone to this point I have been trying to suggest the 
cool — not to say, hostile — attitude with which I approached 
this book. Let's face it, all things being equal, one would have 
preferred to see a long-time toiler in the Lincoln field write the 
update of Thomas and Luthin that so many people knew was 
needed. One would have liked to see a Lincoln "regular" reap 
the rewards of Harper and Row's diligent salesmanship. And 
one would have thought that experience in the field would 
have helped the quality of the book. 

Credit must be given where credit is due, however. Stephen 
Oates has given us a lively, sensitive, and sensible biography 
of Lincoln which takes into account the changes in the field 
which have made Thomas and Luthin seem less than perfect. 
Moreover, he has attempted that most difficult of tasks, a true 
biography, a book which seeks to tell us what the man was like 
not just what roll call analysis suggests his interpretation of 
constituent will was, not just what his Presidential policies 
were, and not just the way his intellect described the world. 
Oates tries to tell us what made Lincoln angry, what de- 
pressed him, and what embarrassed him — when he was 
humble and when he threw his weight around. 

This is no easy task when an author deals with a man who 
had no intimate friends after 1842 (when he and Joshua Speed 
let their friendship, in Lincoln's own words, "die by degrees"). 
This is no easy task in the case of a man of whom his cam- 
paign manager and circuit-riding friend, David Davis, could 
say, "He was the most reticent and secretive man I ever saw or 
expect to see." This is no easy task in the case of a man whose 
law partner claimed special knowledge of the man and yet 
also said that he was the most "shut-mouthed" man who ever 
lived. "He always told only enough of his plans and purposes 
to induce the belief that he had communicated all," said 
Leonard Swett of Lincoln, "yet he reserved enough to have 
communicated nothing." Said Ward Hill Lamon, "He made 
simplicity and candor a mask of deep feelings carefully con- 
cealed, and subtle plans studiously veiled." 

Given such formidable obstacles, Oates does well to put as 
much flesh on Lincoln as he does. He is a sensitive and subtle 
reader of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New 
Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953). 
Take the case of Lincoln's parents and childhood. In the 
course of saying what he did in the early promotion of the 
book — that Lincoln forgot his roots as fast as he could — 
Oates came across as a debunker. Indeed, an editorial he 
wrote for the New York Times on Lincoln's birthday this year, 
denied Lincoln access to "The Academy of Saints" (see The 
New York Times, February 12, 1977, section C, page 21). This 
is the part of his publishers' promotional scheme which, in my 
opinion, went awry. A substantial number of the steady pur- 
chasers of Lincoln books are Lincolnp/u7es who are hostile to 
debunking. This market does not want to buy a book to hear 
its hero vilified and abused. 

In point of fact, Oates is not a debunker at all. What he says 
about Lincoln's escape from his frontier past to professional 


dignity has been needing to be said for some time. In recon- 
structing the reputation of Thomas Lincoln, for example, 
from the accusations that he was a shiftless n'er-do-well, Lin- 
coln scholars have done an important piece of work. This 
Foundation itself has played a big role in this particular re- 
vision of the historical record. Nevertheless, some have car- 
ried the revision too far and ignored Abraham Lincoln's ob- 
vious — and somewhat painful — expressions of disdain for 
his rural past. He, not the historians who were wrong about 
Thomas Lincoln, called his education in Kentucky and 
Indiana "defective." He, not the historians, termed the 
schools in Indiana, "schools so-called." He, not the his- 
torians, made it clear that he learned respectable grammar 
only after he had left his father's roof. Lincoln, and not the 
historians, limited Thomas Lincoln's literary achievements 
to the feat of learning to sign his own name "bunglingly." To 
stress the radical separation from his youthful past — to 
stress the obvious estrangement from his father — is only fit- 
ting and proper. It is not debunking iconoclasm, for it is not 
new, really. Gates maintains this as a theme of at least the 
first half of his book and treats the scene well when the mature 
Lincoln is confronted by his rural past at the Republican state 
convention in Decatur, which gave him Illinois's nomination 
for the Presidency in 1860: 
. . . more highjinks followed. Lincoln's cousin John Hanks 
and another fellow marched down the aisle carrying a 
banner tied between two rotted fence rails. "Abraham Lin- 
coln, the Rail Candidate for President," the banner read. 
"Two rails from a Lot of 3,000 Made in 1830byThos. Hanks 
and Abe Lincoln — Whose Father was the First Pioneer of 
Macon County." At that the delegates broke into a thun- 
derous demonstration, stomping and shoving so hard that 
part of the roof awning collapsed on top of them. When the 
crowd called for a speech, Lincoln pointed at the banner and 
said, "I suppose I am expected to reply to that." As much as 
he detested "Abe" and disliked hickish symbols, he let it all 
go, remarking that he didn't know whether he'd split those 
two particular rails or not, but he'd mauled better ones since 
becoming a man. Again the delegates shouted and whooped 
and flung their hats in the air. And so the "rail splitter" 
image was born, the symbol of Lincoln as humble "Abe" of 
the common people, a homespun hero brimming with 
prairie wit and folk wisdom — a symbol Lincoln's backers 
hoped would give him an electric popular appeal. 
A near sub-theme of the book concerns Lincoln's bouts with 
the "hypo." We know these as fits of depression or periods of 
melancholia, but Lincoln, after his friend and physician Dr. 
Anson Henry, called it hypochondriaism. His worst period is 
well known, after the "fatal first of January," 1841, when he 
broke off his engagement to Mary Todd and when Joshua 
Speed prepared to return to Kentucky. But, if we are to believe 
Oates, they reoccurred, though with less severe symptoms, 
with some frequency: 

Even as he grew older, Lincoln continued to suffer from 
the hypo, from spells of melancholy that troubled his 
friends and associates. In the midst of conversation, they 
observed, he would slip away into one of his moody intro- 
spections, lost in himself again as he stared absently out the 
unwashed windows of his office, brooding over untold 
thoughts and secret storms, until he who viewed each 
human life as a pawn in the hands of an unknowable God, 
as a doomed and fleeting moment in a rushing ocean of 
time, would start muttering the lines of "Mortality." As his 
colleagues looked on in worried astonishment, his face 
would become so despondent, his eyes so full of anguish, 
that it would hurt to look at him. 

But abruptly, "like one awakened from sleep," Lincoln 
would join his visitors again — his mood swings were start- 
ling — and joke and quip with them until laughter lit up his 
cloudy face. For humor was his opiate — a device "to whistle 
down sadness," as a friend said. 
Mary Lincoln, of course, had to deal with the problem too. 
Then there were his mood swings, his habit of withdrawing 
into himself, of being glum and remote when she wanted to 
talk. She did not understand his hypo any more than his 
friends did and was irritated by his spells of abstraction. 

They might come on at the dinner table, where he would 
stare off into space, impervious to conversation and Mary's 
glances. Or he would go off and sit in his rocking chair, im- 
mersed in himself as he mulled over some law case or the 
state of the Union, mulled over the meaning of life and the 
inevitability of death, his death and that of his wife and 
children, until he would shake such thoughts away and pull 
himself back to his house, this room, his plavine sons, his 
anxious wife. Once a spell even came over him while he 
pulled one of his boys in a w agon. Lost in thought, he tugged 
the wagon over an uneven plank sidewalk and the child fell 
off. But Lincoln was oblivious to the fallen boy and went on 
with his head bent forward, hauling the empty wagon 
around the neighborhood. 
He had an attack when he lost the United States Senate seat 
to Lyman Trumbull in February, 1855, during the Sumter 
crisis, upon the resignations of Southern-born officers like 
Robert E. Lee and JohnBankheadMagruderin 1861, after the 
disastrous defeat at First Bull Run, and after the slaughter of 
Fredericksburg in December of 1862. The crush of work and 
and the pace of nearly day-to-day crises helped Lincoln avoid 
prolonged spells of depression during the Civil War because 
he usually got out of them by throwing himself into his work, 
and there was more work to do than ever before in his life. 
Oates portrays Lincoln — especially as President — as more 
prone to anger than any sentimentalized portrait of him ever 
does. Virginia's John Bankhead Magruder came to see Lin- 
coln and "stood right here is his office and 'repeated over and 
over again' his 'protestations of loyalty,' only to resign his 
commission and head for the South. It gave Lincoln the hypo. 
He referred to Lee, Magruder, and all like them as traitors." 
When Baltimore leaders objected that Union soldiers could 
not "pollute" Maryland's soil, Lincoln exclaimed, "Our men 
are not moles and can't dig under the earth; they are not birds, 
and can't fly through the air. There is no way but to march 
across, and that they must do." He "bristled," says Oates, 
when they urged him to make peace with the South: 
You express great horror of bloodshed, and yet would not 
lay a straw in the way of those who are organizing in Vir- 
ginia and elsewhere to capture this city. The rebels attack 
Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the de- 
fense of the Government, and the lives and property in 
Washington, and yet you would have me break my oath and 
surrender the Government without a blow. There is no 
Washington in that — no Jackson in that — no manhood 
nor honor in that. 
Lincoln "became furious" when he learned that Mary had 
overspent a Congressional allowance to redecorate the White 
House: "It can never have my approval. I'll pay it out of my 
pocket first — it would stink in the nostrils of the American 
people to have it said the President of the United States had 
approved a bill over-running the appropriation of $20,000 for 
flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot 
have blankets." Though he generally gave military expertise 
the benefit of the doubt and deferred to the judgments of the 
generals even when he thought them mistaken, the generals 
could make him very angry when Lincoln was sure he was 
right. After General Meade failed to pursue Lee's retreat from 
Gettysburg, Lincoln was apoplectic. He read Meade's mes- 
sage boasting of driving the invador from Northern soil. 
"Drive the invader from our soil," Lincoln exclaimed. "My 
God! Is that all?" He told his son Robert, "If I had gone up 
there, I could have whipped them myself." He thought that 
"there is bad faith somewhere" in failing to annihilate Lee's 
"traitor army." Halleck informed the victorious general of the 
President's "great dissatiscation." 

Lincoln tried to forget feuds, saying, "A man has not time to 

spend half his life in quarrels." And he disliked violence, as 

Oates tells us: 

As Lincoln told an Indiana senator, the war was the 

supreme irony of his life: that he who sickened at the sight of 

blood, who abhorred stridency and physical violence, 

should be cast in the middle of a great civil war, a tornado of 

blood and wreckage with consequences beyond prediction 

for those swept in its winds. 

But anyone capable of fighting the Civil War with the ten- 


acity and clear-sightedness of Lincoln (he carried a copy of 
Sherman's famous orders which inaugurated the March to 
the Sea and the era of Total War in his pocket the night of the 
assassination) had to have something of Jackson in him, a 
stern streak. The biography is very properly called "With 
Malice Toward None," but when Lincoln asked the 
serenading band to play "Dixie" the night of April 10, 1865, he 
did so, he said, because "it is our lawful prize." When the 
Cabinet discussed punishing Confederates, Oates says, "Lin- 
coln made it clear that he wanted 'no bloody work,' no war 
trials, hangings and firing squads — not even for rebel 
leaders. But he would like to 'frighten them out of the country, ' 
he said, 'open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off.' He 
waved his hands as though he were shooing chickens." On 
that day, he agreed in principle with Stanton's plans for 
military reconstruction. 

Lincoln wielded power when it was necessary, and 
threatened to use it when that seemed necessary too. When 
he began to angle for the Presidency seriously in 1860, Illinois 
Senator Lyman Trumbull forgot his debt to Lincoln for 
throwing him his votes in the 1854 contest for the United 
States Senate seat and was supporting Supreme Court Judge 
John McLean, a perpetual contender and now something of 
an old fossil. Lincoln had been to the Cooper Institute now 
and knew that he was well enough known to be a serious 
contender. He began to work hard on support outside the 
state. One thing he did not need was a disunited Illinois dele- 
gation, and "he bluntly advised Trumbull to 'write no letters 
which can possibly be distorted into opposition, or quasi 
opposition to me,' because that would cost Trumbull the sup- 
port of Lincoln's own 'peculiar friends.' Up for re-election as 
senator that year, Trumbull took the hint and stopped pro- 
moting Judge McLean. But frankly he didn't think Lincoln 
could defeat Seward." 

Oates stresses that in the 1850's Lincoln could be counted on 
to supply precise statements of the moral position of most 
Republicans-and with eloquence. Indeed, it was his oratory 
and writing ability which made him a national political 
success. During the Civil War this ability served to keep up his 
relations with the liberal wing of the Republican party. 

Nowhere is the freshness of Oates's approach more easily 
discerned than in his stress on Lincoln's close working rela- 
tionship with Massachusetts's liberal Senator Charles 
Sumner during the Civil War. Their first contacts came na- 
turally as a result of (1) Sumner's being Chairman of the 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee and(2)thefact that Lin- 
coln had a headstrong and domineering Secretary of State, 
William H. Seward. Lincoln balanced Seward's belligerence 
towards Great Britain against Sumner's impulse to pacify 
and mollify. "You must watch him and overrule him," 
Sumner warned. In exchange for Sumner's advice on foreign 
policy, Sumner got access to the President. Their relation- 
ship, like most of Lincoln's relationships, had its ups and 
downs. When Lincoln condemned Secretary of War Simon 
Cameron for issuing an unauthorized report suggesting 
emancipating and arming Negroes, Oates says, 

abolitionists and Republican liberals openly condemned 
Lincoln's stand against federal emancipation and exerted 
all their powers of persuasion to change his mind. Chief 
among them was Charles Sumner, who visited Lincoln 
regularly and beseeched him to stop protecting the very in- 
stitution that had caused the rebellion. One day, as Lincoln 
sat in the Senate galleries, Sumner gave an impassioned 
eulogy to Edward Baker . . . Gesticulating dramatically, 
Sumner described how Baker had died at Ball's Bluff and 
then — looking straight at Lincoln now — Sumner cried 
that slavery was "the murderer of our dead Senator 
[Baker]." A correspondent said that Lincoln started violent- 
ly at Sumner's remark, quite as though he had been 
Willing to compromise, Sumner supported Lincoln's plan for 
gradual and compensated emancipation in Delaware. When it 
stalled, Lincoln told Sumner that "the only difference be- 
tween you and me on this subject is a difference of a month or 
six weeks in time." "Mr. President," Sumner replied, "if that is 
the only difference between us, I will not say another word to 

you about it till the longest time you name has passed by." 
Despite occasional policy differences, their personal asso- 
ciation — and Sumner's friendship with Mary Lincoln — sur- 
vived right up to the time of Lincoln's death (and after, in the 
case of Mary). 

The very fact that Oates calls Lincoln's critics on the left 
"liberal Republicans" indicates his principal revision of the 
war years — gone is the artifical story of tremendous conflict 
and tension between Lincoln and members of his own party. 
Lincoln was recognized by Republicans as a liberal Re- 
publican, sound on slavery, for his entire career. 

A practitioner of biography on a large scale, Oates is also a 
master of the thumbnail biographical sketch. The book is 
dotted with delightful little portraits of men who played im- 
portant parts in Lincoln's life. Again, Charles Sumner pro- 
vides a nice example, when he first appears on the scene as an 
advisor to Lincoln on policy toward England: 
An arch, sophisticated bachelor with B.A. and law degrees 
from Harvard, Sumner even looked English, with his 
tailored coats, checkered trousers, and English gaiters. He 
was so conscious of manners, he admitted, "that he never 
allowed himself, even in the privacy of his own chamber, to 
fall into a position which he would not take in his chair in 
the Senate. 'Habit,' he said, 'is everything.'" A humorless, 
high-minded man, he hated slavery and spoke out with 
great courage against racial injustice to black people. Back 
in 1856, he'd almost been beaten to death by Congressman 
Preston Brooks of South Carolina and had gone off to 
Europe to convalesce. He had rich brown hair streaked with 
gray, a massive forehead, blue eyes, and a rather sad smile. 
Mary was terribly impressed with him. And so was Lincoln. 
His adversary in foreign policy circles, William Seward, also 
gets a nice portrait: 
. . . now that Seward had given up trying to run the admin- 
istration, Lincoln liked him as a man and thoroughly en- 
joyed his company. Sixty years old and slightly stooped, 
Seward resembled a jocular bird chewing on a Havana 
cigar. His nose was hooked in a beak, his ears stuck out, his 
voice was husky, his eyebrows thick and grizzly, and his 
silver hair always disheveled. He was a celebrated 
raconteur, loved to pun and banter, often braying so hard at 
his own wit that it left him hoarse. A chain talker, he en- 
tertained guests at his house on Lafayette Square with "A 
regular Niagara flood" of chatter, gossip, and uninhibited 
profanity. And how he could entertain, throwing lavish 
dinner parties that lasted four hours and went through 
eleven courses, complete with imported wines and brandy. 
Yet he was a man of many moods — now an effusive story- 
teller, now a cynic, now a show-off, now a tough and serious 
administrator. In all, he was a man of immeasurable self- 
esteem, so certain of his own greatness that he tipped his 
hat to any stranger who appeared to recognize him. 
Befitting the stature of Sumner and Seward and their im- 
portance in the Lincoln story, these sketches are longer than 
most, but they are typical of the attention to character, habit, 
and appearance in Oates's descriptions of Lincoln's acquain- 

As these sketches may indicate, Professor Oates writes in a 
very lively style. Those who fear from Oates's academic 
credentials that this will be a scholarly tome with Teutonic 
footnotes are in for a very pleasant surprise. This professor's 
style happens to be conversational. He uses contractions 
(he'd, didn't, hadn't, and so forth) regularly. He uses sentence 
fragments regularly — for example: "Now to get these 
operations in motion before autumn set in" (page 257). He uses 
marks of elision to indicate pauses: "McClellan was in bed 
. . .faking illness, fumed some Republicans, so he wouldn't 
have to fight" (page 283). He concludes sections with sen- 
tences suggestive of ominous and foreboding events. When 
Lincoln visited the Confederate capital after its fall and less 
than a week before his assassination, he returned to Wash- 
ington with a happy party aboard the steamer River Queen: 
Mary rejoined Lincoln at City Point with a "choice little 
party" that included Sumner and Lizzie Keckley. They'd 
come down a few days ago and toured Richmond them- 
selves; and the sight of the rebel capital and transformed 


Sumner "into a lad of sixteen." On the journey back to 
Washington, they had a long discussion about Shakes- 
peare, and Lincoln entertained the group by reading the 
scene in Macbeth where Duncan is assassinated. 
With Malice Toward None is a book in the Thomas and Luthin 
tradition, and, of course, Oates has the advantage of being 
able to use his predecessors' work. His discussion of the 
executive routine at the White House follows Thomas's 
chapter on that subject very closely, as well it might, since 
that is the finest chapter in the last couple hundred pages of 
Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. Hereis a sample of how close 
the two books can be, this time on Lincoln's last cabinet 
the Southern people. Lincoln spoke kindly of Lee and other 
officers and especially of the enlisted men in the Con- 
federate army who had fought bravely in a cause they held 
dear. Stanton presented a plan of reconstruction which 
would have wiped out old state boundaries, but Lincoln did 
not favor it. He was glad that Congress was not in session, 
for he hoped to have friendly relations re-established before 
it met. "There are men in Congress," he observed," . . . who 
possess feelings of hate and vindicti veness in which I do not 
sympathize and can not participate." He hoped there would 
be no persecutions, "no bloody work"; enough blood had 
been shed. No one need expect him to take part in vengeful 
dealings, even toward the worst of the secessionists. 
"Frighten them out of the country," he said, "open the 
gates, let down the bars, scare them off' — he waved his 
great hands a though shooing sheep out of a lot. 
[Oates] On other reconstruction matters, they deferred the 
question of Negro suffrage, knowing that it would require 
extended debate. As for punishing the rebels, Lincoln made 
it clear that he wanted "no bloody work," no war trials, 
hangings and firing squads — not even for rebel leaders. 
But he would like to "frighten them out of the country," he 
said, "open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off." He 
waved his hands as though he were shooing chickens. 
At other times, especially when dealing with the war years, 
Thomas seems a bit overwhelmed by the crush of events and 
loses sight of Lincoln as a man. When treating the draft riots 
of 1863, for example, Thomas's paragraphs get choppy (six on 
the one page describing the draft law and its social results). 
He describes Lincoln's dealings with New York's Governor 
Seymour at the time of the riots this way: 
Greeley and other Republican editors reviled Seymour as a 
Copperhead, but Lincoln treated his opposition as born of 
honest conviction. He would welcome an opinion from the 
Supreme Court, he replied to the Governor, but he could not 
wait for it. He must have soldiers, for the enemy was driving 
every able-bodied man into the ranks "very much as a 
butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen." He would 
give New York all possible credits for enlistments, but the 
draft must go on. 

Lincoln was not responsible for the deficiencies of the 
draft law; he was obliged to administer it as Congress had 
framed it. But much of his time had to be spent in explan- 
ation and adjustment of various governors' complaints. 
"My purpose," he wrote to Seymour, "is to be . . . just and 
constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the impor- 
tant duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the 
unity, and free principles of our common country." About a 
month later the draft was quietly resumed in New York 
So ends this section in Thomas's book. It seems brittle and 
stiff and legalistic in tone, when compared to Oates's section 
on the same subject: 
What did Lincoln want, Seymour raged, New York City 
ablaze with riots? The city cut off from the outside world 
and "given over to a howling mob?" 

Of course Lincoln didn't want any more mob outbreaks — 
it was terrible, he said, for working people to maul and 
murder other working people as they had in New York City. 
But he told Seymour he would not suspend the draft, not 
when the enemy was forcing all available men into his 
ranks, "very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a 
slaughter pen," in hopes of attacking again and destroying 
all the Union had gained at Gettysburg . . . 

In mid September Lincoln prepared a two-fisted defense 
of the draft, arguing that it was not only Constitutional, but 
based on sound historical precendent as well. Did not the 
Founding Fathers resort to conscription in the Revolution 
and the War of 1812? Are we not now to use what our own 
Fathers employed? "Are we degenerate? Has the manhood 
of our race run out?" He was resolutely determined, he in- 
formed the Cabinet, to stand behind the draft — and to deal 
with officials who obstructed it as he'd dealt with Vallan- 
digham: he would banish them all to the Confederacy. 

Hay was amazed at how tough Lincoln was becoming. 

"The Tycoon is in fine whack," Hay said of the President. 

"He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and 

planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. I never 

knew with what tryannous authority he rules the Cabinet, 

till now. The most important thing be decides & there is no 

cavil." "He will not be bullied — even by his friends." 

The pasage from Oates has not lost sight of the man who dealt 

with the draft problem and, for my money, he is more nearly 

the sort of man who could win the largest war in American 


In addition to being able to use Luthin's and Thomas's 
works, Oates benefits from much research conducted since 
their time. His book is notably better for being able to use 
Justin and Linda Levitt Turner's Mary Todd Lincoln: Her 
Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972) and David 
Donald's biography of Charles Sumner, for example. 

It is not without its peculiar weaknesses. Lincoln's ideas are 
hard to find. Even though he was not a philospher or in any 
sense a systematic social thinker, still his world view merits 
some systematic exploration, analysis, and rendering. It is 
hard to understand from Oates's book where all the policies 
came from and how they all fit together at any moment. 

Ironically — given Oates's reputation as a debunker — 
another weakness is that the book is so pro-Lincoln that it 
sometimes takes Lincoln's view of his enemies uncritically. 
Oates gives Stephen Douglas very short shrift, and there is 
nothing like the appreciation of Lincoln's rival one can find in 
David Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher's, The Impending 
Crisis, which manages to admire both men by understanding 
both of them. 

It smacks of a twentieth-century academic's secular preju- 
dices to ignore that innermost of subjects, religion, in a book 
which seeks to reveal the inner man. There is a brief mention 
of religion early in book, and Oates never mentions it again. 
This defies the pattern of increasing evidence of religiosity 
which most scholars have found in Lincoln's life, and it defies 
the evidence of some of the witnesses on whom Oates 
commonly relies for other points in Lincoln's life, Mary Todd 
Lincoln and Noah Brooks, for example. 

Finally, of course, one can object that there is little that is 
new in the book — that is, little that stems from Oates's own 
research in original sources. Yet this can hardly be a weak- 
ness in a book which, despite the media hype for selling it, was 
surely not meant to come up with anything new on its own. It 
was meant merely to incorporate all the changes that have 
taken place in the twenty-five years since Thomas's book ap- 
peared. Oates even adopts Thomas's footnote format, which is 
to have no footnotes but to bunch the references by section, 
suggesting where all the directly quoted material appears. 

Nevertheless, one can achieve something "new" by ac- 
cumulation of details garnered from others' work. This is 
what makes a successful and original synthesis. The presen- 
tation of a tough and Jacksonian Lincoln in a book which 
nevertheless admires Lincoln is rather original, I think, and 
satisfies a demand in the field. It has long been difficult to fi- 
gure out how a tender-hearted Lincoln ever won that war; 
Oates explains it and does so without diminishing the size of 
Lincoln's heart. The book does not achieve the pinnacle of suc- 
cess in synthesis that David Potter and Don Fehrenbacher do 
in another book published by Harper and Row, The Impen- 
ding Crisis, but that book is a masterpiece. If work in the Lin- 
coln field never dipped below Oates's high standard, the field 
would be a dazzling one indeed. 

Lincoln students should greet Stephen Oates, who is no de- 
bunker and who is a capable biographer, with open arms and 
with no malice at all. He has served us well. 

Lincoln Lore 

June, 1980 

Bulletin of the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum. Mark E. Neely, Jr., Editor. 
Mary Jane Hubler, Editorial Assistant. Published each month by the 
Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46801. 

Number 1708 


The elder statesman is a familiar fixture on the Washington 
political scene today. In recent years, the names of Clark 
Clifford and Averell Harriman have often appeared in the 
headlines at times of national crisis. Abraham Lincoln's 
administration was one long crisis, and Francis Preston Blair 
was the Civil War's elder statesman. A relic of the Presidency 
of Andrew Jackson, Blair was influential because of his 
proximity to Washington, his blurred partisanship, his many 
political connections, and his age and experience. At last he 
has a modern biographer, Elbert B. Smith, who gives consid- 
erable stress to the Civil War years in Francis Preston Blair 
(New York: The Free Press, 1980). 

Blair was seventy years old when the Civil War began. An 
architect of Jacksonian Democ- 
racy in his prime, he bitterly 
opposed the expansion of 
slavery and became an important 
founder of the Republican 
party when he was well into his 
sixties. His family and political 
relations formed a powerful 
network throughout the Union, 
especially in the Border States 
of Maryland, Missouri, and 
Kentucky. One of his sons, 
Montgomery Blair, was Lin- 
coln's Postmaster General. 
Francis Preston Blair, Jr., 
"Frank," flitted from politics 
to the battlefront and had 
sensational impact almost 
everywhere he went. Even 
Francis P. Blair's political 
enemies liked him personally. 
His family adored him and 
carried his political ideas 
everywhere they went Like 
most elder statesmen, he play- 
ed his largest role in foreign 
policy, initiating the abortive 
Hampton Roads Peace Confer- 
ence. Confederates who would 
trust no other Republican 
trusted Blair. 

This is a competent and 
fair-minded biography of a 
man whose political ideas have 
not been popular in recent 
years. Like all elder statesmen, 
Blair's age made him in some 
respects a political troglodyte. 
A kindly slaveholder himself, 
Blair and his politically impor- 
tant family were ardent coloni- 
zationists long after the idea 
was a sociological, political, 
and economic absurdity. The 

Fronds Preston 



This is the first modern and complete life of F. P. 
Blair — member of Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cab- 
inet," founder and editor of the Washington Globe, 
a founder of the Republican Party, advisor and 
confidant to five VS. Presidents, patriarch of one of 
Maryland's biggest political dynasties, simper of 
America, and one of the country's greatest and 
shrewdest "behind the scenes" powers. 

FIGURE 1. Dust jacket of the new Blair biography 

triumph of their conservative — even reactionary — constitu- 
tional ideas after Lincoln's death has not endeared the Blairs 
to modern historians. Eight years ago, when I asked a college 
professor what was the point of his lecture on Reconstruction 
in an American history survey course, he replied humorously, 
"To hell with Montgomery Blair." Smith's biography, which 
is particularly strong on the Blair family's inner workings, is 
a valuable corrective to this hostility absorbed by so many 
historians in recent years. It is most illuminating to discover 
how personally likable the old man was. Even the unbudging 
Charles Sumner never took personal exception to attacks on 
his political ideas by members of the Blair clan. 

Nevertheless, the book's weaknesses must be the real focus 
of this review. Despite com- 
petent research and readable 
prose, Francis Preston Blair is 
lacking in at least one impor- 
tant respect. Professor Smith, 
for all his ability to capture 
Blair the man, never quite 
delineates Blair the political 
thinker. To describe the polit- 
ical thought of many a 
politician / editor / wire-puller, 
would be a mistake. Oppor- 
tunism and ad hoc political 
apologetics too often destroy 
anything systematic about 
their political thinking. With 
Blair, however, it is a serious 
mistake not to do so. He played 
a larger role in making Jack- 
sonian political doctrine than 
Andrew Jackson himself did. 
When political problems arose, 
President Jackson always 
shouted, "Take it to Bla'ar." 
Despite his ability to land on 
his feet politically, despite his 
brave and clever moving with 
the times into the Republican 
party, and despite his steady 
personal loyalty to those he 
served, Blair's ideas had so 
ossified by the Civil War era 
that the most distinctive thing 
about him was his ideological 
quality. Even when his policies 
were up to date, the ideas under- 
lying them were strangely 

Blair was an ideologue, and 
his children inherited a pen- 
chant for grandiose ideas from 
him. It is virtually impossible, 
incidentally, to write about 
Francis Preston Blair. One 

From the Louis A. Warren 

Lincoln Library and Museum 


h: i 

FIGURE 2. French troops in Mexico worried Blair but did not faze Lincoln 

must always write about the Blairs. Smith does this without 
really admitting that he does, probably because the only other 
existing work on the subject, William Ernest Smith's The 
Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics, did exactly the same 
thing in 1933. One is immediately attracted to Elbert B. 
Smith's Francis Preston Blair because it promises to sort one 
member of that clan out, but, in fact, the modern Smith cannot 
do it either. When one finishes the new book, one still thinks of 
the Blairs' political ideas, not Montgomery's, not Frank's, 
and not the patriarch's particular ideas. 

These ideas were all important, and they are all too sketch- 
ily delineated in Professor Smith's book. What Smith has 
failed to describe is the tendency among the Blairs to think 
always in systematic, gigantic, almost cosmic geopolitical 
terms. Among American politicians this trait has often been 
lacking, and it is a serious error for a biographer of such a rare 
thinker to ignore it. 

To end the Civil War in 1865, Blair concocted a scheme to 
fight France in Mexico. This was the idea behind the Hamp- 

ton Roads Peace Conference, 
and it is common knowledge. 
There are other clues in Smith's 
book that the Blairs always 
painted their political ideas on 
a grand canvas. The Blairs 
were not deeply troubled by the 
policy of emancipation. As 
Francis P. Blair explained to a 
Maryland friend as early as 
April 9, 1862: 

You seem dissatisfied over 
abolition. All practical men 
are now sensible that slav- 
ery so affects the people 
whether it ought to do so or 
not as to make it a terrible 
institution to our race. They 
see that it imbues a broth- 
er's hand in a brother's 
blood, and invites foreign 
despots to plant monarchies 
on our continent. With this 
result before us, the only 
enquiry should be how to get 
rid of an institution which 
produces such miseries. 
Never content with the 
practical, parochial, and 
powerful argument that slav- 
ery was bad for the white race, 
Blair somehow managed to 
conjure up the bogey of monar- 

True, French bayonets prop- 
ped Maximilian up on the 
Mexican throne, but most 
Americans took little interest 
in Latin America. President 
Lincoln was never much inter- 
ested in Mexican schemes. As a 
former Whig, he had long 
detested American imperial 
designs on her southern neigh- 
bor. A politician of moral 
vision, Lincoln was also an 
eminently practical man, and 
he was content to fight one war 
at a time. Blair, on the other 
hand, was obsessed with the 
monarchical threat on Amer- 
ica's southern flank. Democrat- 
ic politicians, even those with 
free-soil proclivities like Blair's, 
had a weakness for Latin 
American ventures. 

Somehow, any threat to 
American national solidarity 
caused Blair to see monarchy in 
the wings. Months before the 
firing on Fort Sumter, the elder 
statesman told Lincoln that the North was "as much bound to 
resist the South Carolina Movement, as that of planting a 
monarchy in our midst by a European potentate." The days of 
Jackson seemed not far removed to Blair, who still called the 
secessionists of 1860-1861 "nullifiers." His policy of resisting 
secession was up-to-date, all right, but the assumptions be- 
hind it were decades old. Earlier still, just after Lincoln's 
election in November, 1860, Blair had given him a piece of bad 
advice, telling him to mention colonization in his letter ac- 
cepting the Republican nomination. This would have the 
practical effect of warding off "the attacks, made upon us 
about negro equality." Blair did not leave the subject on that 
banal, but practical plane, however. He also launched into an 
elaborate analogy between the Chiriqui Improvement Compa- 
ny, an outfit poised to colonize blacks in Latin America, and 
the old East India Company, which had made England's 
empire in India possible. The same anarchy which had 
invited English intervention in India through a private 
corporation prevailed "among the little confederacies . . . 

From the Louis A. Warren 

Lincoln Library and Museum 


South of the Free States of this continent." Chiriqui, Blair 
said, "may be made the pivot on which to rest our lever to 
sway Central America and secure . . . the control . . . neces- 
sary for the preservation of our Republican Institutions." He 
was like an ancient and battered weather vane rusted into 
pointing fixedly in the same direction all the time. Sometimes 
the winds shifted so that he pointed the way truly, but the key 
factor was his fixity, not his wisdom. 

Inside Blair's odd-shaped and proverbially ugly head, there 
swam a strange array of sophisticated but old-fashioned 
ideas. The electoral defeat of Breckinridge, Bell, and Douglas 
could lead him to think, not of possible civil war or the deeper 
problem of slavery and racism which underlay that threat, 
but of Mexico and monarchy. He could leap from politic 
considerations of the racial views of the American electorate 
to geopolitical blather about analogies to the British empire. 
And all this was mixed with occasional acute judgments and 
a charming self-deprecation. In a letter written before 
Lincoln's election, Blair told his son Frank that Lincoln had 
"genius [and] . . . political knowledge" and stressed the 
importance of his honesty in bringing support. Blair 
described himself as "a sort of relic which Genl Jackson 
wielded against the very Nullification" which again 
threatened the Union. 

Smith leaves much of this out, and, in doing so, he nearly 
leaves Blair out of his biography of Blair. It is most unfor- 
tunate that Smith chose to write a "life and times" of Blair, for 
his life was long and his times comprehended most of 
American political history from the Era of Good Feelings to 
the end of Reconstruction. Smith spends entirely too much 
time in describing general political events, sometimes well 
and sometimes poorly, and far too little time in analyzing 
Blair's political vision. 

One cannot, from all evidence, dismiss as claptrap and 
window dressing the grand geopolitical context of Blair's 
often crudely practical ideas. Though attempting to escape 
the wrath of Northern racism may appear to be the only 
operative content in Blair's colonization obsession, in fact the 
analogies to England and the muttering about monarchy 
seem really to be the heart and kernel of his thought. In the 
letter suggesting that Lincoln talk of colonization as a way to 
ward off accusations that Republicans advocated racial 
equality, Blair explained the connection between monarchy 
and slavery. The Southern "oligarchy," he thought, had lost 
its American love of freedom and saw the "degraded lower 
orders of whites" as fit only to be slaves or soldiers. South- 
erners would rather fight than work, and such pre-bourgeois 
attitudes (Blair did not use that term) would lead to 
monarchy. From this system of ideas, at least in part, came 
the Blairs' famed obstinate resistance to secession and 

Francis P. Blair's fevered vision of American politics was 
always informed by his acquaintance with world history. 
From the men he regarded as the great luminaries of 
American history, Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, Blair 
claimed to have learned the inevitability of a final solution to 
America's race problem. "The period has come," he told 
Lincoln after his election, "which Mr. Jefferson saw would 
arrive, rendering the deportation or extermination of the 
African Race from among us, inevitable." He pointed to the 
"Hostilities of irreconcileable Castes" which "marked the 
annals of Spain during 800 years, springing from the 
abhorrent mixture of the Moors with Spaniards, in the same 
peninsula." Lincoln called him "Father Blair," and one can 
imagine the mixture of awe and incredulity with which he 
must have regarded such cosmic musings. The President's 
own political vision included little of this grand world- 
historical baggage. Yet at the moment of his greatest 
political influence on the Lincoln administration, the time of 
the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, Blair insisted to 
Lincoln: "You see that I make the great point of this matter 
that the War is no longer made for slavery but monarchy." 
The old man blurted his fears that Jefferson Davis would 
league with a foreign monarchy to save Southern 
independence. He babbled that Napoleon had wanted a black 
army from Santo Domingo to invade the American South, stir 
up insurrection, and bring about French conquest of the 
United States. At Hampton Roads, by contrast, Lincoln 
scoffed that he left history lessons to Seward. The President 

From the Louis A. Warren 

Lincoln Library and Museum 

FIGURE 3. Francis Preston Blair, Jr. 

was interested in Southern peace terms — even, as G.S. Boritt 
has suggested, in how much coin it would take essentially to 
bribe the South into reunion. 

Jefferson Davis was a political realist too. He told Blair that 
France did not want a Mexican empire as much as she wanted 
a base from which to build up her feeble navy. Davis, at war 
with an industrially superior nation, knew the lure of coal, 
iron, and timber. Blair did not get the point. He still feared 
that Davis would become France's ally in subjecting the 
United States to monarchy. The elder statesman told Lincoln, 
far too busy even to read long letters from his generals, to 
observe the parallels with modern times in Carlyle's Life of 
Frederick the Great. 

An old-fashioned idea lay at the heart of Francis P. Blair's 
thought and that of his influential children. Jacksonian 
ideologues always saw sharp class conflicts in America. They 
thought government aid to private corporations aided only 
rich men. They denied the possible general benefits of 
economic development. Such issues were irrelevant during 
the Civil War, but seeing Southern society in the same class 
terms was not. A perception of class conflict between 
Southern poor whites and a slaveholding oligarchy 
apparently lay at the bottom of Blair's fears of Southern 
willingness to invite monarchies to save their movement for 
independence. This error in perception of Southern society 
had serious political consequences. Montgomery Blair 
inherited from his father a penchant for seeing class conflict, 
whether it was there or not. Montgomery always insisted that 
secession was a minority movement and that "Military 
Government" in the Confederacy held the essentially loyal 
Southern masses at bay. This was carrying the common 
Northern belief in the existence of a slave oligarchy to an 
extreme, but in 1861 more people than the Blairs believed it. 
Even President Lincoln may have thought that way in 1861. 
He at least insisted that there was no majority for secession in 
any Southern state except, perhaps, South Carolina. 

Ever the practical observer, Lincoln came to see that this 
could not be so. After two and one-half years of war, Lincoln 
admitted that it would be difficult to find even ten percent of 
the population in any Southern state loyal to the Union. 
Montgomery Blair never changed his mind. The rigid Blair 
class analysis ground to its inexorable conclusions. The point 



From the Louis A. Warren 

Lincoln Library and Museum 

FIGURE 4. This cartoon from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, January 21, 1865, depicted Blair as a granny, 
trying to bring the Confederacy to the bargaining table with sugarplums and barley water. General Ulysses S. 
Grant points to cannonballs as the more appropriate way of convincing the Confederates to rejoin the Union. 

of the Postmaster General's famous speech at Rockville, 
Maryland, late in 1863, was that there existed a loyal majority 
in the South against which the North must never be at war. It 
brought him the undying hatred of all the Radical 
Republicans (except friendly Charles Sumner). There is little 
wonder the Blairs opposed Reconstruction. They had never 
seen much disloyalty in need of restructuring into loyalty. 

It is almost impossible to write a decent biography of a man 
the biographer hates. The spirit rebels so at spending great 
amounts of time with an unlikable person that it can result 
only in unbalanced fulmination against the poor subject of 
the biography. The problem with Elbert B. Smith's Francis 
Preston Blair is not its mild bias in favor of its subject. This is 
almost necessary in order to attract a biographer to work, and 
it is rendered harmless by the common knowledge that most 
biographers suffer from this fault. Abraham Lincoln himself 
scorned biography because of its predictable lionization of its 
subject, no matter what the subject's faults. 

The problem with this book is more serious. Smith fails 
essentially to capture Francis Preston Blair's nature. The 

ideologue surfaces only occasionally, most notably in Smith's 
treatment of Frank Blair's speech "The Destiny of the Races 
of this Continent," delivered in Boston in 1859. There the 
great Blair political universe is laid out in an astonishing 
array of references to Dr. Livingstone on African hybrids and 
to the role of Moors in Spanish history. The speech, as Blair's 
daughter observed, dazzled "not only the politicians — but the 
Literati — & State street gentility." Smith's discussion of it 
dazzles the modern reader too and should make him wonder 
where all these ideas came from and whither they were going 
in the Civil War. This rare and brief glimpse of the Blair world 
view is but a dazzling moment in what is otherwise a 
competent, but sometimes sketchy, chronicle of Blair's role in 
many events of American history described at too great 
length. The inner springs of this fascinating elder 
statesman's thought and actions are too often left 
unexplained. And, as Smith's book clearly proves, Blair's 
thought and action were too important to too many people — 
from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln, from Thomas 
Hart Benton to Charles Sumner — to be left in such a state.